Fast & Furious 6 and Thor digital matte painter, Nathalie Mathé, began her career
at NASA before switching to digital art, and now works on big-budget
effects films for Hollywood...
From computer programming at NASA to matte painting for Hollywood blockbusters, Nathalie Mathé has had an interesting career. She talks about how Ralph McQuarrie, the legendary Star Wars matte painter, inspired her to follow her dreams; and goes in-depth on some of the more recent challenges she has had to face in constructing whole movie sequences.
3dtotal: Can you describe your job in three sentences?
I am a digital matte painter and texture artist, which means that I paint environments of shots in 2D as well as in 3D. For example, I might destroy buildings, extend environments, remove roads or add mountains or whatever needs to be there that was not shot in the original scene. In 3D texturing, I paint colors and how materials will respond to lighting on 3D characters, vehicles and buildings. The choice between 2D matte painting or full-3D texturing depends on whether that element is seen several times in a sequence and under similar or different cameras angles.
Matte painting is often used because it's faster, and it has become quite powerful with 2.5D projections and moving cameras – it is not a static background anymore like it used to be. Nowadays, matte painting for VFX films is done mostly by digitally manipulating real photographs, not painted from scratch like animation movies. Texturing is more of a mix between using real photos and painting by hand on the computer.
Nathalie's 2011 Demo Reel
3dt: How did you get started in the VFX industry?
That is a long story. I have a scientific and computer programming background and it's only after working for several years in artificial intelligence research, that I felt the need to explore a more artistic path.
I started with evening painting classes and weekend video shooting and editing classes. I had so much fun the first time I used After Effects
that I decided to really pursue this direction and get a degree in Video Production in parallel to my career. I shot and edited my first documentary, which was screened at the Palo Alto Festival
The turning point, I think, was when I visited the Art of Star Wars exhibit in the mid-90s in San Francisco. I suddenly discovered that there were real artists working behind the scenes of movies; designing characters, researching landscapes, building up models – it was fascinating. But what really struck me was when I saw Ralph McQuarrie's
matte paintings! They were huge paintings on glass, bigger than me, and they were so realistic looking with planets and alien worlds – all painted by hand by this incredible artist.
I wanted to meet him, and was able to attend a special evening reception with Georges Lucas too. I waited in line, and finally talked to Ralph McQuarrie in person. He was already an old guy at the time, but so sweet. I asked him how he got to work on Star Wars in the first place, and he told me that at the time he was working at NASA painting the simulations for the Voyager spacecraft journey through the solar system – and that's how Georges Lucas recruited him.
Suddenly I felt totally moved, because I was working at NASA too! And before me was an artist showing me that there was a possible path from NASA into the film industry. A brand new possibility opened up for me. It took me several more years before I returned to school to study 3D animation and special effects, in order to build a new career from scratch in the animation and film industry. I began in France, my country of origin, then internationally. Nowadays, I am still working with a computer, but as a digital visual artist.
3dt: You've been able to work on several productions and at different studios – what have you found most interesting to work on?
I really enjoy the first research and design phase of a matte painting, when you try to define the concept for the shot. Sometimes you are given an already well defined concept that someone else did and there is not much room for creativity at this point, but often no one knows yet how the shot needs to look.
You are given the intention of the director for the shot and some references photos. The brief might be pretty vague, and you need to propose something so that the look gets locked before proceeding to the full-blown matte painting. You need to feel what is needed for this shot, based on other shots already approved in the sequence, the production references and the story being told. It might require you to do additional research for similar environments and time periods. It's quite an open phase and it's very important not to rush it, so that you really immerse yourself in the shot. In this first proposal, you also need to respect the basics, like perspective, lighting, and composition, so that it will work for the shot. That's the most interesting phase for me.
For example, in Les Misérables
, I worked on a major transition shot when Valjean realizes that he must turn his convict-life around, with the action then propelling 8 years forward to a different location where he has in fact found wealth and become mayor. For the extreme zoom-in shot from the heavens into Montreuil-sur-Mer, I went as far as researching the Napoleon cadastral registers in French archives, to provide the director with accurate historical references of the town and the distribution of the fields around it in the 1830s.
I proposed several concept illustrations that were refined and approved before proceeding to create the final digital matte painting work. This work itself was complex technically and involved projecting 2D matte paintings created at various scales and camera angles onto a 3D model of the terrain, so that they perfectly matched seamlessly with each other, and integrated with the 3D modeling and rendering of the town buildings performed by a CG artist. If the look had not been locked first, then it would have taken forever to fully revise each matte at different scales.
3dt: What is the proudest moment of your career?
I would say that two of my proudest moments have been working on a small-scale VFX film at MacGuff Ligne
in Paris, A Happy Event (Un Heureux Evenement)
, and on the full-blown VFX film, Fast and Furious 6
, at Double Negative in London
. Each time I felt honored and challenged by being given work I had not quite done before, and for which I had to come up with innovative and efficient solutions, yet at the same time feeling trusted and fully supported by my supervisors. Each experience this was an opportunity to grow, to work with exceptionally talented artists, and I was very proud of the results.
On A Happy Event
, directed by César award-winning Rémi Bezançon, I created an extreme zoom out digital shot from a close up view of a window on the roofs of Paris, to a very large view encompassing roofs, buildings and streets of several city blocks, to underline the loneliness of the main character lying on the sofa under the window. I blended several matte paintings at different resolutions and angles and re-projected them onto a 3D model of the area I had created. I also animated the 3D camera path to match the first part of the shot inside the room up to the window. The mattes and 3D modeling were created using photos shot from a remote-controlled balloon flying above the roofs of Paris early in the morning, under changing light conditions and an unpredictable path.
On Fast & Furious 6
, I was the principal digital matte painter for creating the huge CG environment for the tank chase sequence in the Canaries. The end of the sequence involves a spectacular jump and the flipping of the tank. Double Negative built a completely digital bridge and a huge digital canyon environment and kept little bits of plate photography that were reprojected back in. We used a helicopter for a couple of days to photograph huge canyons in Tenerife and Gran Canaria. We then mapped out specific flight paths for the helicopter using GPS and were able to generate really high-resolution panoramas and photogrammetry
-based model reconstruction.
Once we got all this data back to Double Negative, we had to rebuild it as a renderable 3D model. Then it was passed on to me to paint the entire canyon environment. Given the size of the canyon and the huge among of data and pixels we needed to integrate, I first performed a few tests with various software and methodologies to figure out what would be the most efficient and practical solution.
I quickly found a solution using a combination of projected 3D cameras and the texturing software MARI
. I selected about 50 out of the 160 helicopter photos that were giving us the best angle and resolution, projected them onto the 3D geometry of the canyon using the position of the cameras during the helicopter shoot, and then blended them all together so that they perfectly matched seamlessly with each other.
After this first step of recreating the original canyon, all the hotel complexes, roads, fields and houses could still be seen, but the director Justin Lin wanted that location to feel more like a desert and more remote, so in a second creative step I painted out all signs of habitation or cultivation from the surroundings, and replaced them with wild natural canyon vegetation and rocks. Finally, we modified this natural canyon environment to extend it further and make it deeper and more impressive for the final sequence on the bridge. It was then used in almost every shot of this sequence, and I created more matte paintings specific to each shot to naturally blend the 3D canyon environment with the original onset photography.
3dt: What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring matte painters following in your footsteps, especially women?
Always follow your heart, no matter how hard it is or what other people tell you. You are the only one to know what's best for you. It is of course crucial to have talent and keep developing it constantly, trying to work with the best artists on challenging projects, but you also need to learn networking skills in this profession, because who you know is always important and will make a difference. Women are still a minority in this industry, although it is much better than 10 years ago when we only made up 10% of it, now it is more like 30-40% depending on the company and project. But there are still very few women leads and supervisors in the creative and technical roles.
There's loads more to see on Nathalie's site